Key issues review: Evolution on rugged adaptive landscapes

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Adaptive landscapes represent a mapping between genotype and fitness. Rugged adaptive landscapes contain two or more adaptive peaks: allele combinations with higher fitness than any of their neighbors in the genetic space. How do populations evolve on such rugged landscapes? Evolutionary biologists have struggled with this question since it was first introduced in the 1930s by Sewall Wright. Discoveries in the fields of genetics and biochemistry inspired various mathematical models of adaptive landscapes. The development of landscape models led to numerous theoretical studies analyzing evolution on rugged landscapes under different biological conditions. The large body of theoretical work suggests that adaptive landscapes are major determinants of the progress and outcome of evolutionary processes. Recent technological advances in molecular biology and microbiology allow experimenters to measure adaptive values of large sets of allele combinations and construct empirical adaptive landscapes for the first time. Such empirical landscapes have already been generated in bacteria, yeast, viruses, and fungi, and are contributing to new insights about evolution on adaptive landscapes. In this Key Issues Review we will: (i) introduce the concept of adaptive landscapes; (ii) review the major theoretical studies of evolution on rugged landscapes; (iii) review some of the recently obtained empirical adaptive landscapes; (iv) discuss recent mathematical and statistical analyses motivated by empirical adaptive landscapes, as well as provide the reader with instructions and source code to implement simulations of evolution on adaptive landscapes; and (v) discuss possible future directions for this exciting field.

Original languageEnglish
Article number012602
JournalReports on Progress in Physics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2018


FundersFunder number
European Molecular Biology Organization
Israel Science Foundation1568/13 (LH)


    • adaptive surfaces
    • adaptive valley
    • complex adaptation
    • epistasis
    • fitness landscape
    • peak shift
    • population genetics


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